By Terri Hall | October 10, 2012
L.t. Gov. David Dewhurst Sen. Robert Nichols
Texas, which lies at the heart of the North American transportation trade corridor system, is a hotbed of tolling schemes and grandiose infrastructure plans like the Trans-Texas Corridor intended to leverage construction financing to further advance globalization and no one understands that better than the politicians of the Lone Star State.
While the Texas road lobby may be cheering, Texas taxpayers have reason not to after Lt. Governor David Dewhurst announced that Senator Robert Nichols will replace Senator Tommy Williams as Chair of the Senate Transportation Committee. Though Williams ushered in many anti-taxpayer transportation bills during the 82nd session of the Texas Legislature, Nichols voted for all of them and has been at odds with the grassroots over tolling existing freeways and controversial public-private partnerships (P3s) – that represent eminent domain takings for private gain and oppressively high toll rates.
Nichols is certainly qualified to lead the Committee, having been a Transportation Commissioner prior to running for the Texas Senate. However, some view him as the biggest roadblock to eliminating the loopholes in Texas statute that permit freeway lanes to be converted into toll lanes, by allowing the free lanes to be downgraded to frontage roads.
As Commissioner, Nichols was instrumental in drafting the legislative language and has introduced bills to tweak that language every term he’s served as senator. Chapter 228.201(a) of the Texas Transportation Code gives specific instruction as to how a toll project entity can convert existing free lanes into toll lanes under certain circumstances. Essentially, as long as an agency leaves as many free lanes as existed prior to any tolling, it can impose tolls on freeways.
Most legislators you talk to think that means freeway main lanes cannot be tolled unless the same number of free main lanes that existed prior to adding toll lanes remain after any improvements are made. But Nichols, TxDOT, and toll entities instead have interpreted that to mean an existing freeway main lane can be tolled and the frontage/access roads can now serve as the free lanes. Therein lies the rub – many Texans do not think a frontage road is an acceptable replacement for a highway main lane and feel such a scheme is double taxation, making Texans pay twice to use main lanes they’ve already built and paid for.
Hero or foe?
In 2007, Nichols authored the original bill to slap a moratorium on public-private partnerships, called Comprehensive Development Agreements (CDAs) in Texas, and educated lawmakers on the pitfalls involved in road privatization contracts, like non-competes that prohibit the expansion of free roads, punitively high toll rates, and higher costs overall to the taxpayer. Governor Rick Perry vetoed Nichols version of the moratorium, and Nichols eventually voted for the watered down compromise bill.
In 2009, Nichols authored a bill, SB 17, that would have kept P3s and many of these provisions alive. He even brokered an amendment with a road lobbyist to guarantee the private entity would never lose money on such deals, which allowed the Trans-Texas Corridor TTC-69 P3 to proceed. Nichols then denied it later. When the bill, SB 17, was attached it failed in the regular session, he tried to revive it in the special session in July but couldn’t even get it out of committee.
Another controversial bill sponsored by Nichols in 2011, HB 563, would have given counties the authority to establish Transportation Reinvestment Zones (TRZs) that raid the property tax appraisal increases in the zone for transportation projects – even to subsidize toll roads. It was soundly defeated when it came before the voters in the form of a Constitutional Amendment, Proposition 4 later that year.
But Nichols is garnering support from taxpayers on his bill to dedicate vehicle sales taxes to roads. It’s a way to get more money to roads without raising taxes. Vehicle sales tax represents revenue of $3 billion a year and would go a long way to fixing Texas roads without the reliance on tolling, as the legislature has done for the last decade. It didn’t make it out of committee in 2011 mostly due to the budget crisis; however, at a recent Transportation Forum sponsored by the Texas Tribune, he continued to push the idea. A critical question remains – will he prohibit these funds from being used to subsidize toll projects, which is another form of double taxation?
Nichols faced an underdog tea party challenger, Tammy Blair, in the primary, who made his record on transportation a key element of the campaign. Though Nichols ultimately prevailed, taxpayers are becoming increasingly aware of the anti-taxpayer, anti-property rights legislation coming out of Austin and they have a growing network in place to hold elected officials accountable.
Senator Nichols has a golden opportunity to steer road policy in the right direction and put an end to a lot of the controversy and rancor that has brought transportation policy in the State of Texas to a standstill. He understands transportation better than anyone in the legislature, and they’ll look to him to lead the way. So it’s up to the taxpayers to ensure he and his colleagues enact a pro-taxpayer, pro-freedom transportation agenda, not one controlled by the special interests who stand to gain from billions in public works projects.
Terri Hall is the founder of Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom (TURF), which defends against eminent domain abuse and promotes non-toll transportation solutions. She’s a home school mother of eight turned citizen activist. Ms. Hall is also a contributor to